Nazi persecution of Jews: saved by the C of E Schindlers

It’s a little-known act of bravery – how two British clerics rescued 1,800   Jews from the Nazis by baptising them.

First there was Oskar Schindler, then Sir Nicholas Winton. Now the names of   the Reverends Hugh Grimes and Fred Collard are to be added to the roll of   honour of those who helped hundreds of Jews escape the clutches of the   Nazis.

But whereas Schindler used cunning and industrial muscle to protect his   factory workers, and Winton his diplomatic ingenuity to get more than 650   children out of Czechoslovakia by train, the two British clerics did their   bit in a more unusual way.

In just four months in 1938, they baptised some 1,800 Viennese Jews into the   church, in the hope that the resulting certificate of Christianity would   help provide them with safe passage out of occupied Austria and into a less   hostile country. For although Austria’s neighbours were wary of allowing a   wholesale influx of Jewish refugees, they were more prepared to admit those   who could demonstrate, albeit with a single piece of paper, that they   belonged to the Christian religion.

The process began on a small scale, soon after Hitler’s annexation of Austria,   in March 1938. But with the Austrians displaying an even keener appetite for   persecution of the Jews than their German neighbours, the trickle of   converts arriving at Christ Church, in Jauresgasse, became a flood.

“They began to form queues outside the chaplaincy,” reports historian Giles   Macdonogh, who, with British historian Christopher Wentworth-Stanley, has   been researching the story of the mass baptisms for the past decade. “On the   14th of June Grimes baptised eight Jews, on the 19th he baptised 12, and on   the 26th he baptised 19. He reached 103 on the 10th of July, and his record   was 229 on the 25th.”This extraordinary story began its journey into the public realm in 1999, when   Wentworth-Stanley was approached by the then chaplain of Christ Church,   Vienna, Jeremy Peake. “He wanted me to design a plaque commemorating the   work of Grimes and Collard,” recalls Wentworth-Stanley, a long-time resident   of Vienna. “As it happened, his brother John had been my housemaster at   Eton, and had made me into something of a historian. And the more I delved   into the church’s registers, the more interesting the whole story became.”

For not only did his digging unearth the hitherto untold tale of Grimes’s and   Collard’s mass baptismals, it also uncovered a hub of secret agent activity   connecting the church and the British Embassy. It involved a dashing MI6 man   by the name of Captain Tommy Kendrick, a shadowy verger and ex-jockey called   Fred “Siegfried” Richter, and a sinister German double agent known as Karl   Tucek.

For at the same time as Grimes and Collard were fast-tracking hundreds of   terrified Jews through an accelerated Christianity course – they would learn   the catechism and Lord’s Prayer one day and be baptised the next – Kendrick   was running an espionage operation to obtain information on German shipyards   and submarine deployment. He used Christ Church for his assignations with   Tucek. Meanwhile, Richter was operating as a middle man for both   enterprises, receiving ”introduction’’ fees from Jews wanting to be   baptised, and more cash from MI6 for lining up possible agents for Kendrick.

“Christ Church only seats 165 people, so you can imagine the kind of   overcrowding there must have been on busy baptism days,” says   Wentworth-Stanley.

“I have spoken to women who were there as young girls and they say it was   utter pandemonium and chaos,” confirms Macdonogh, who touched upon the   subject in his book 1938: Hitler’s Gamble.

“For some years, Christopher and I have been trying to get publishers   interested in this story, with very little success,” he adds. “And,   unfortunately, the number of people still alive who went through the baptism   process is dwindling.”

One person who did experience it, albeit unwittingly, is Dr Stefan Popper, the   coroner who presided over the inquest on the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.   Now 79, he decided at the age of 12 to convert from Judaism to Christianity,   only to learn from his father that he and his twin sister had been baptised   into the faith already, in Vienna.

For most “converts”, of course, the adoption of Christianity was unlikely to   be anything other than a means of getting out of Austria to escape the   increasingly violent Nazis.


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